Stiglitz, Summers, Secular Stagnation, and the Supply Side

Joe Stiglitz recently published an attack, “The Myth of Secular Stagnation,” on Larry Summers’ hypothesis of secular stagnation, a revival of a term used by Alvin Hansen decades ago. Larry first presented his secular stagnation hypothesis at a conference jointly hosted by the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution on October 1, 2013, during the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis. It has gone viral since then.

In his critique, Stiglitz argues that Summers was wrong to say that the slow growth was secular; there was nothing secular about it, Stiglitz argued: if there had been a counterfactual larger demand-side stimulus package, there would have been a faster recovery without stagnation.  In his response, Summers lumps the Stiglitz  critique in with earlier critiques of secular stagnation, including mine “The Economic Hokum of ‘Secular Stagnation’” WSJ Jan 2014, which suggested, in Summers words “that secular stagnation was a fatalistic doctrine invented to provide an excuse for poor economic performance during the Obama years.”

I think that Summers’ critique of what Stiglitz writes is good.The irony is that I and other critics of secular stagnation have a completely different view from Stiglitz, who argues that the problem was insufficient demand and that a larger discretionary stimulus package would have avoided stagnation.  But my empirical research along with John Cogan, Tobias Cwik and Volker Wieland  shows that the demand-side stimulus packages were not successful. A larger package of those types would have done no better. In a 2011 Journal of Economic Literature article I wrote: “Some argue that the economy would have been worse off without these stimulus packages, but the results do not support that view….Others argue that the stimulus was too small, but the results do not lend support to that view either.”

Instead, the alternative view, outlined in my book First Principles, and elsewhere was that tax reform, regulatory reform, monetary reform and budget reform would increase economic growth by raising productivity and labor force participation. These supply side reforms–especially lowering marginal tax rates on investment and reducing costly regulations–were meant to provide incentives to do the things that would raise economic growth. I agree with Stiglitz that there was nothing secular about the stagnation we were seeing when Summers wrote. But the problem with slow growth was the lack of policies on the supply side, not the lack of larger demand-side discretionary stimulus packages.

With the tax reform and regulatory reform of the past two years we are seeing a marked improvement in economic growth. The economy is beginning to roar, as predicted, as these policies are being put in place.

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